Nessun Dorma (abbreviated)

“Nessun dorma” is getting its regular 15 minutes of fame again. The tenor showpiece from Puccini’s last opera Turandot was a Pavarotti trademark and turns up in lots of contexts that evoke literal or metaphorical triumph. In the opera, it’s the tenor who triumphs, at least if he can sing the full high B that closes the aria. He also wins the heart of the icy soprano (who basically has a sing-off with him in the previous act.)

The music appears pretty regularly in pop culture; remember the 1990 World Cup? It was an effective signature tune for that, and one senses Puccini probably was smiling. What’s caught my ear more recently is it appearance on TV talent competitions over the last couple of years, including last month’s “American’s Got Talent.”

To wit, two examples:

Here’s Paul Potts from Britain’s Got Talent: 1k08yxu57NA

Or Luiz Meneghin from the U.S. version.

Generally, I’m all for any visibility for opera at all. Although neither of these people really sing the aria all that well, it hardly matters. They are both amiable types and the Brazilian guy has some character to his voice. More power to them. Nobody who loves opera should turn up his or her nose at competitions, as they are certainly prevalent in this art form and in classical music generally. We should be so lucky that millions might get as engaged in the plight of young operatic talent as they do with the contestants on the “Idols” and Got Talents. Maybe a viewer will watch and get intrigued? The YouTube counter on Potts is at an astonishing 95 million.

The problem for me is that what these 95 million are watching is barely barely “Nessun Dorma,” but a ridiculous truncation of it. In its original form, it’s not a long aria: about three and a half minutes. Apparently that is 90 seconds too long for TV, as the contestants cut the middle out.

Is the fear that audiences will bail because it’s ‘operatic’ and thus broadcast poison? Is this most direct and accessible of opera composers really too recondite? Does every aspect of music have to fit the Procrustean bed of a TV show format?

I don’t know what effect the shortened version of the aria would make on somebody who hadn’t heard it before. Although the studio audiences and judges certainly seem pretty verklempt after hearing only the opening and the last bit. To me, that triumphal high B doesn’t make musical or dramatic sense in the shortened version, as nothing builds to it. Is three minutes really beyond our attention span for music (although not for the surrounding talk)? Did the audience in the theater actually hear the whole thing? Then why not show it?

Whatever the reason, everybody’s seem a little scared of the full three and a half minutes of romantic vocal glory. The great Swedish tenor Jussi Björling wasn’t, and you shouldn’t be either. Here he is.

Vincerò!, indeed.

I’ll leave it for another post to talk about what made Björling’s voice so affecting.

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